As he has every year since he was first elected, President Bush took a trip over Memorial Bridge this morning to Arlington Cemetery. There he paused to recognize the contributions made by our service men and women, both living and dead, to keeping America a free and sovereign nation.
He spoke in the plaza around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. His speech was brief and to the point, lasting for less than half an hour. The audience was filled with veterans and their families and current members of the armed services and was very receptive to his simple message. It wasn't a long or complicated speech, but it had some very strong and memorable parts, particularly early in the speech when he said:
“All who are buried here understood their duty. They saw a dark shadow on the horizon, and went to meet it. They understood that tyranny must be met with resolve, and that liberty is always the achievement of courage.”
A good, clear expression of the basic reasons why Americans have always gone to war.
Most of the speech focused on the fallen veterans themselves and he included quotes from those who fell in several wars and left us their thoughts in final letters to their families. A quote from First Lieutenant Mark Dooley who was killed by a terrorist bomb in Iraq was particularly meaningful. He wrote to his parents: “Remember that my leaving was in the service of something that we loved, and be proud. The best way to pay respect is to value why a sacrifice was made.”
He concluded by saying:
“Our nation mourns the loss of our men and women in uniform; we will honor them by completing the mission for which they gave their lives -- by defeating the terrorists, by advancing the cause of liberty, and by laying the foundation of peace for a generation of young Americans.”
An important reminder that despite all criticism and all the partisan confusion, what America and Americans fight for is always to spread freedom and the peace whcih makes it possible. It reminded me of Wilson's statement to Congress when asking for a declaration of war against Germany:
“America must fight, not to conquer, but for peace and justice. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.”
Like Bush, Wilson's presidency was troubled and like Bush he was also faced with challenges beyond his capabilities, but despite their shortcomings, both men seem to share an understanding of the basic nature of the American character and the principles we all believe in when our better natures hold sway over petty partisan allegiances and personal prejudices, as happens when we join together in times of great peril for the nation.
This idea that America fights for freedom and for no other cause goes all the way back to the days of the Revolution and the writing of Thomas Paine in The Crisis:
“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”
What we should never forget is that today, as was the case in Wilson's day and in Paine's, what we ultimately fight for is always freedom - be it freedom from foreign domination or the tyrrany of terror - regardless of the distractions and baser motivations of some among us. To dedicate our lives and the lives of our young men and women to any lesser cause would be to fail the generations which have gone before. This is a truth which you cannot ignore when you stand before row upon row of white crosses at Arlington.